Young person's guide to god and religion

By "young" we mean primary school age and above - we've had some great chats from year 4 to year 13!

Religions make things hard to understand - even when they produce stuff for young people. They often avoid the question by using complicated or meaningless words or wandering off into nonsense. This a good example.

(some) "Christians ... believe the bread they eat at Mass is the body of Jesus. They know that the bread still tastes like bread, looks like bread and smells like bread. It is just like bread, but it becomes the body of Jesus."

What exactly does it mean? We have no idea. Are they eating bread or are they eating Jesus? It seems a bit weird to us.

We will start by introducing a very useful phrase: "tabula rasa". This comes from the Latin language and means "a clean slate" or a "fresh start". The idea is to look at everything with an open mind, without any assumptions or beliefs that may alter how you see things.

Here is an interesting thought. Every baby is a tabula rasa, it is a clean slate, it is not born believing in a god or as a member of a religion. There is no gene for Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, etc. There are no Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Judaist or Zoroastrian babies - only religious parents.

Another way of thinking about it is to imagine you are a visitor from a planet in another star system. On your planet you don't have gods and religions but you want to understand why they exist on Earth. So, you have a tabula rasa as far as gods and religions are concerned - you are starting from fresh.

Occam

We would like to introduce you to one of our favourite people: William of Occam. We are big fans of Occam!

William was around in the 13th and 14th centuries - somewhere between 1287 and 1347 - and we think he was born in the village of Ockham in Surrey. He is usually called "William of Occam" rather than "William of Ockham" - names often change over time.

Like most people of his time, William was religious - in fact he was a Franciscan Friar - a type of religious priest.

You may find it strange that a religious priest is one of our favourite people, but, like many religious people at the time, William wanted to think for himself and not simply believe what he was told.

William came up with a brilliant idea to use when finding solutions to problems. It involves getting rid of, or shaving off, all parts of an idea that aren't absolutely necessary to explain something. The idea of shaving things off is why William's idea is called "Occam's Razor".

"The best answer is usually the simplest one,
the one that makes the fewest assumptions and
invents the fewest new ideas."

We love that! Some of us write computer software and we use Occam's Razor every day to keep things simple.

Occam is recommending that we start with a tabula rasa so we can make a fresh start when looking at anything.

Ground rules

We need some ground rules if we are starting with a tabula rasa:

  • Keep an open mind. Don't grab the first idea that comes along, look at all the possible answers.
  • Think for yourself.
  • Don't believe everything people tell you - and certainly don't believe anyone that says "it must be true because I say so." People are often wrong.
  • Don't believe everything you read in books - and certainly don't believe it when someone says: "it must be true because it says so in this book." Writing something down doesn't make it true.
  • Question everything. The word "why?" is one of the most powerful words you can ever use.

Before you accept a new idea you should ask:

  • Why do we need this new idea?
  • Who thought up this new idea - and why?
  • What is this new idea trying to explain?
  • What evidence do we have to support this new idea?
  • Can things be explained in a much simpler way?

God

  • Why do we need the god idea? (We atheists don't need the god idea to explain anything.)
  • Who thought up the god idea? (We have no idea - possibly someone living in a cave during the stone age.)
  • What is the god idea trying to explain? (It is trying to explain almost everything!)
  • Can things be explained much simpler than inventing the god idea? (Yes they can.)
  • Why are there so many gods? (We have counted over 2,000 in the world today.)
  • If god is so powerful, why doesn't she make her presence known to us all? (Excellent question.)

    Dd you notice how we referred to god as "she" and "her"?

    Why do people almost always refer to their god as "he"?

    Should a god be "he", "she" or "it"?

    Is a god male or female - if so, why?

    Please don't say "because it says so in our holy book" - holy books were written by men!

  • In the past many things happened that could "only be explained by god" - these were called "miracles".

    Why don't we hear much about miracles today?

    In the past people couldn't read and they weren't well educated. Could it be that more people today are willing to ask questions and look for simpler explanations?

For a really hard question, try; "what exactly is a god?"

Religion

  • A religion is a group of people who believe in one or more gods - and we know of at least 2,000 gods in the world today. Technically Buddhism isn't a religion because it has no god - it is more a way of life.
  • A religion has one or more holy books which define what members must believe and how they must behave. There are hundreds of different religions and hundreds of holy books.
  • A religion has religious leaders or religious scholars who study the holy books to decide what they mean.

    Religious leaders often lead "prayers" where religious people thank their god for things or ask their god for things.

  • When religious people disagree about what their holy books mean, they split to form a new group called a "sect" - part of a religion with slightly different beliefs from other sects. There are thousands of different sects.

    A split in a religion is called a "schism" - pronounced "skism".

  • Different ways of understanding religious books are called different "interpretations".

         "I think it means this, you think it means that."

    which is usually followed by:

         "I am right, you are wrong."

    which is sometimes followed by:

         "and I will kill you or imprison you if you disagree with me."

    It is always followed by a schism as a new sect pops into existence.

Questions:

  • If there is only one god why are there so many religions and sects?
  • Why is god such a bad writer? Why do religious people disagree about what she wrote?
  • How do you judge which sect is right and which is wrong?

    The answer is usually:

         "my sect is right, your sect is wrong."

    Maybe they are all wrong?

    Maybe we don't need the god idea at all? (We atheists don't need it.)

    Maybe the world would be a happier place without religions? (We atheists are happy without religion.)

    Maybe there are other reasons why people join religions? (Family, friends or the social life.)

  • Why do people become religious?
  • Do young people with religious parents have much of a choice?
  • Have you studied other religious beliefs - and non-religious beliefs?
  • Do you think religious schools are a good thing? If so, why?
  • Do you think young people should be free to decide for themselves what they believe?
  • Do you think you have enough information to make a free and informed choice about what to believe?